One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole story of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is the culture clash between the sophisticated, gay, cultured New Yorker and the “just plain folk” in Holcomb, Kansas, particularly when, as we discover, Capote invited some of his friends from Holcomb and its’ neighbor, Garden City, to New York, to one of his parties. Reportedly, they were not impressed by the sophisticated culture, but were more than happy to be able to return home with stories about meeting famous actors and princesses.
When Capote arrived in 1959 to write about the Clutter family murders, most people in Holcomb had no idea of who he was, though he was, by then, a very well-known writer. They didn’t much care for him at first, either, but he quickly began to ingratiate himself with the local police, including Alvin Dewey, an investigator with the Kansas Bureau of Investigations. His wife, whom Capote met in a supermarket, was the key: she did value literature and was dazzled by Capote’s connections.
Holcomb, Kansas might as well have been a different planet. Everyone went to church, everyone knew each other, everyone pitched in in a crisis, and everyone was white and heterosexual. Don’t sneer at Holcomb: for all the close-minded parochialism, small towns like Holcomb do have their upside. People took care of each other. They were actually reasonably tolerant of weirdness and non-conformity as long as it didn’t threaten the status quo too much (“It’s okay to be different; but not too different” as Woody Allen put it in “Bananas”). And who knows? Some day, a thousand years from now, people may look back at life in small towns in America and say to themselves, “you know, that was as good as it got for the human race. Comfort. Predictability. Prosperity.” And then someone may point out that that is only a superficial view of what life was really like in those small towns. There was bullying, and abuse, and alcoholism, and a steaming, suppressed, virulent hatred of outsiders. [See Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” for a fascinating encapsulation of small town American life, in all of it’s facets.]
Some relatives of the Clutter family continue to resent the book, the movie, and Truman Capote. They have a familiar complaint: the book doesn’t accurately represent the wonderful Clutter family. The Clutter family was, by all accounts, wonderful indeed, but what they really mean is that the book doesn’t make them feel wonderful about the Clutters and awful about the killers. They resent the depiction of the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, as humans. They resent the sophisticated attitude towards crime, that the perpetrators have a story, that there might be things that happen in a person’s life that affect his character and behaviour, when we all know it is Satan alone who causes evil. The resent the implication that the Clutters had flaws and foibles.
They detailed what they called 45 mistakes in the book. If you analyze their list, like I did, you actually may come away with an even higher regard for the over-all accuracy of Capote’s book. (For example, he didn’t give enough credit to Mrs. Clutter’s love of cooking. And he noted that she was often “unwell”, based on comments from some people who knew her well, which the Clutter family contradict but don’t really undermine. And he mis-stated the exact size of the Clutter’s acerage.) Given what we know about Capote’s work habits at this time, I tend to believe Capote. He didn’t really care what you thought about the Clutters and had no reason to ignore what he heard. Nelle Harper Lee was with him and verified most of his information.
The story is fresh and relevant because that divide is probably bigger than ever. Many of the citizens of Holcomb did eventually at least come to respect the fact that Capote was a well-regarded writer.
Today, they would just call him “fake news”.